The dancefloor in Terminal 5 was already rank with sweaty t-shirts when Kevin Abstract yelled from the onstage group of six wiry figures, “Can we all just sing the chorus to Bleach one more time, as a family?” He and the rest of the self-proclaimed hip-hop boyband BROCKHAMPTON promptly directed the crowd in the chorus, roaring the words without the assistance of their microphones.
“This song is so [expletive] sad. I cry every time,” a man next to me remarked. It was an odd truth to be boasting to a group full of strangers, but hoisting it as a signifier of his relationship with BROCKHAMPTON seemed appropriate at this show. It was a depiction of vulnerability; every person there responded with a similar level of realness. I cannot know that everyone felt a heightened vulnerable and emotional level, but the room seemed to indicate it in everyone. It was not always a sad show—most of the time it was thrilling, as many hip-hop shows are—but its tender, communal moments placed BROCKHAMPTON on a different platform.
I looked down at the shirt of the man who had spoken, which ironically boasted Pitchfork magazine’s rating of their first studio album Saturation: it read “BROCKHAMPTON; Saturation; 6.5/10.” It was funny—a tongue-in-cheek response to the review’s incredibly mediocre reception of the album. Clearly the band did not agree, or they did not care. I laughed and told the man I loved his shirt. He thanked me as we continued to sing with Kevin and the band: “I forgot my passport / for sure / all for a pretty sky…”
Yesterday, a friend told me that trap music was the new emo, and while I neither know much about trap music or would think to classify BROCKHAMPTON as trap, the show certainly had elements of emo shows: mosh pits, crowd surfing, and heavy fan participation. At times BROCKHAMPTON even felt DIY, showcasing nearly rhyme-less sections, as if they threw it together in an hour in a basement. This doesn’t detract from the music, but rather adds a layer of charm to each verse, proudly recognizing each vocalist’s imperfection and amateurism. It seems a fitting style for a band that met on a Kanye West fan forum.
What makes BROCKHAMPTON unique among many hip-hop and emo artists is the frequent use of humor in their songs. In their song “Alaska,” one vocalist exclaims “I’m a young Zuckerberg, I wake up, I make stuff;” a bizarre claim that is as endearing as it is perplexing. It is possible that the line is simply underthought, but it may also be ironic: a mounting claim followed by a disappointing climax, depicting insecurity and pseudo-egoism. Likely, it is a little of both, showcasing the band’s sense of humor while simultaneously depicting serious themes.
These are two of the many elements of BROCKHAMPTON’s music that allow them to reach a level of intense vulnerability, and it takes very little digging to recognize that this balance is exactly what the band tries to strike. Throughout the show in Terminal 5 on their “ill be there” Tour, the band played video clips between certain songs composed of interviews with the band members: “Do you play any instruments?”, “What is your stance on sex?”, “Do you believe in God or a higher power?”. Each member was surprisingly honest and by the end of the show each audience member felt several phrases closer to each bandmate than before.
As well as revealing themselves to the audience, BROCKHAMPTON demanded audience participation, forcing us into an integral role in the show. Beyond mosh pits, the band had the audience sing their hit “1999 Wildfire” a cappella, had us sing one audience member happy birthday, and of course had us sing the chorus to “BLEACH” a cappella, as a “family.”
The reciprocal relationship BROCKHAMPTON cultivates with its audiences—the familial nature present in their shows and in the way the band carries themselves as people—is not merely complimentary to the band’s music: I believe it is the primary goal. To understand BROCKHAMPTON outside of that context would be to misunderstand them, fundamentally.
The first clues to this lie in the composition of the band itself. BROCKHAMPTON is a diverse group of thirteen members. The leader of the group, Kevin Abstract, is gay, and raps about it often on songs such as “Queer” and “Weight.” The band also consists of a variety of racial backgrounds. Already, BROCKHAMPTON seems like a band for everyone—one of the producers of BROCKHAMPTON, Robert Ontinient, was quoted in an article from FADER saying “I think it’s important — it’s a representation of different backgrounds, and giving a voice to people who may not have a voice in a way. People can really relate to that, in one way or another, just because of how much diversity there is in the group.”
Questions of the resounding validity of this statement are raised in the homogeneity of BROCKHAMPTON as a “boy band”—It is composed of all men and fails to acknowledge the place of women in their music. This is a flaw inherent to boy band-ness that deserves its own conversation—whether aimed specifically at BROCKHAMPTON or boy bands in general.
Despite the absence of women in the group itself, BROCKHAMPTON’s respect and commitment extends beyond the group to their audience at large—women included. Take this past May, for example, when one of the founding members of BROCKHAMPTON was kicked out of the band because of confirmed sexual assault allegations. While the band is fun, good humored, and willing to push the envelope on certain political and social issues, they are also self-aware, respectful, and willing to take necessary steps to cultivate a safe environment for their listeners—an environment born out of integrity.
Finally, BROCKHAMPTON cultivates a unique family through its inclusion of more than just performers in the band. The full band that appears in their promotional gear and on their website includes vocalists, singers, producers, web managers, artistic visionaries, and many other jobs that reach beyond performing. At the show I attended there were six members on stage, where there are thirteen members of the band in total. The recognition of these members as equals emanates a feeling of community among the band members—a feeling the band appears to share with its audiences.
BROCKHAMPTON’s imperfections, members, and reciprocal performances cultivate a familial musical identity that transcends traditional methods of musical critique. Although Pitchfork and other publications that offered lukewarm analyses of BROCKHAMTON’s music are likely right—not every BROCKHAMPTON song has a clean beat, professional sounding melody, or eloquent verses—there seems to be a failure to see the true worth of BROCKHAMPTON’s music under this reduction. I don’t know that there is an easy way to understand what a band is “about” in a singular review of a single album. The sample size is not large enough, and the time spent with the album insufficient. But living with a musical artist—experiencing in various ways for an extensive amount of time—is rewarding: it presents a virtue of artistry that reaches beyond any of the words they may say. Residing with a musical artist and attempting to understand them in their contexts, through their performance, and in their actual persons leads to a far greater meaning of their art and a far richer gain from each piece of it.
“BLEACH” is one of BROCKHAMPTON’s biggest hits. It deals with insecurity, depression, and fear of loneliness. As Kevin Abstract and the rest of BROCKHAMPTON stood on stage, singing with the audience, I’m pretty sure every single person at Terminal 5 understood the vulnerability and the family BROCKHAMPTON wanted people to feel in their music. People linked arms, Kevin pointed out various audience members and gave them the thumbs up, we sang just as Kevin wanted: as a family. I don’t know exactly what the last line of “BLEACH” is supposed to mean, but I think that every member felt it together when joined in a unified chorus. I didn’t count, but I’ll bet we repeated it fifteen times.
“I forgot my passport / for sure / all for a pretty sky…”